(photo: Ft. Meade)
A federal judge in Sacramento, Calif., ruled the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional.
The pledge’s reference to one nation “under God” violates school children’s right to be “free from a coercive requirement to affirm God,” said U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton.
Karlton granted legal standing to two families represented by Sacramento atheist Michael Newdow, who lost his previous battle before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The judge, nominated to his seat by President Carter in 1979, said he was bound by the precedent of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ in 2002, which favored Newdow.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Newdow’s case 8-0 because he did not have legal standing to represent his daughter, who is under sole custody of her mother.
In January, however, Newdow filed a complaint in federal court in Sacramento, Calif., with eight new co-plaintiffs, seeking to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance on the grounds it violates the so-called “separation of church and state.”
Last month, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a Virginia case that the pledge was constitutional, points out Mathew D. Staver, president and general counsel of Liberty Counsel, which filed a brief in the high court case.
Today’s Sacramento ruling will be appealed to the 9th Circuit, Staver said, and if ruled unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court likely will take the case and, this time, address the merits.
“In today’s judicial climate, today’s ruling is not surprising but it is dismaying,” Staver said. “This history of the Pledge of Allegiance illustrates that the phrase ‘under God’ is a permissible acknowledgement rather than an establishment of religion.”
Staver argued that if the pledge established or tended to establish a religion, then that would have happened during the past 50 years of its existence.
“Today’s ruling illustrates why we need judges who are umpires applying settled law rather than activists intent on imposing their own ideology,” he said, alluding to remarks this week by chief justice nominee John Roberts during confirmation hearings this week.
President Bush joins in reciting of Pledge of Allegiance (photo: White House)
Newdow, a doctor and lawyer who argued his own case before the high court last year, sued the Elk Grove Unified School District in Sacramento, where his daughter attends.
He claimed subjecting his 8-year-old to recitation of the pledge amounted to “daily indoctrination of religious dogma.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling overturned the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision.
But the high court’s majority opinion ruling did not address the pledge’s constitutionality, leaving the way clear for another legal challenge.
At the time, Newdow said a good aspect of the decision was that “we know what three of the justices are thinking, and we can address that when we bring the challenge again.”
Justices Sandra Day O’Conner and Clarence Thomas signed then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s concurring opinion, which stated the pledge’s reference to God does not violate the Constitution.
“The phrase ‘under God’ in the Pledge seems, as a historical matter, to sum up the attitude of the nation’s leaders,” Rehnquist said.
It is “in no sense a prayer, nor an endorsement of any religion,” he stated. “The recital, in a patriotic ceremony pledging allegiance to the flag and to the nation, of the descriptive phrase ‘under God’ cannot possibly lead to the establishment of a religion, or anything like it.”
Justice Antonin Scalia, who had given a speech favoring “under God” in the pledge, did not participate in the case.
In his majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said “when hard questions of domestic relations are sure to affect the outcome, the prudent course is for the federal court to stay its hand rather than reach out to resolve a weighty question of federal constitutional law.”
The Pledge of Allegiance originally was printed in 1892. Its original text has been amended twice. First in 1923, the phrase “the flag of the United States of America,” was substituted for the words “my flag.” In 1954, Congress added the words “under God” at the request of a Catholic men’s organization, the Knights of Columbus.